Meet Our Research Associate:
Ben is a Health Research Associate for the Bridgeport Department of Health and Social Services. He analyzes data and conducts research on health-related trends in Bridgeport. Ben received his master’s degree (M.A.) in psychology with a certificate in data science from Rutgers University; he received his bachelor’s degree (B.S.) in psychology with a minor in music performance from SUNY Oneonta. He has been involved on a variety of studies with topics ranging from infectious disease to the psychology of extremism. His thesis research at Rutgers University involved studying the structure of strongly held beliefs by looking at peoples’ beliefs about the candidates in the 2020 US presidential election. He also participated on a variety of public-health research projects while working at the Senator Walter Rand Institute for Public Affairs. These projects ranged from tracking trends in the spread of COVID-19 throughout New Jersey to conducting a health needs assessment of the residents of Salem County, New Jersey.
One thing’s for sure, the COVID-19 pandemic made everyone’s lives more stressful. Whether a matter of social isolation from being unable to see friends and family, losing a job, or having to take on the burden of home schooling your child, life throughout the pandemic has not been easy. Sure enough, a poll in May 2021 found that almost 1 in every 3 Americans experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety, a rate that is much higher than before the pandemic.1 However, a recent study sheds light on a potential remedy to these covid-related mental health struggles.
The study, which was published in December 2021, shows that Online Health Communities (OHC) could potentially help people manage social isolation and mental health struggles. OHCs are internet forums where people with a certain chronic illness can connect with each other to share information and offer support around this chronic illness. For example, the are some OHCs for hypertension and others for breast cancer.
The study involved sending out surveys to members of 28 different OHCs who agreed to participate. The survey asked questions about the sources of information people relied on, the experiences people had throughout the pandemic, and the types of information people wanted to see more of. The survey was sent out at 6 different times between March 2020 and April 2021, each time to a different group of OHC members. Survey responses from over 10,000 OHC members were collected.
While the researchers originally began the study with the goal of looking at the types of information the OHC users relied on to learn about COVID-19, they found interesting trends related to mental health and social isolation that caught their attention. First, it was found that almost 60% of the OHC members surveyed reported that the pandemic increased their stress and anxiety in daily life, again showing the impact the pandemic had on the public’s mental health. Next, it was found that OHCs saw the most use in April 2020, which was when the United States was in the midst of our lockdown. Finally, the survey responses showed that after information about COVID-19, the most common type of information that people were interested in seeking was mental health support. When taken together, the researchers concluded that these findings could mean that people were using OHCs to seek out support to help cope with social isolation and mental health struggles. At the very least, these results suggest that OHCs have potential to provide people with such support because they provide an easy way to connect for people in isolation and because their members’ have a shared interest in mental health.
Of course, no study is without limitations. It is important to note that these findings do not directly show that OHC members were managing their mental health struggles on their OHCs, only that members used OHCs more often during periods of isolation and that there was substantial interest in mental health support among OHC members. This limitation is understandable because the study was originally designed to answer different questions. However, future research will need to directly ask OHC members if they have used their online communities for mental health support. Furthermore, it would be important to test whether using OHCs for support brings improvements in users’ mental health symptoms. However, even with these limitations, this study provides some initial evidence that OHCs may offer support for people who are isolated or struggling with mental health challenges.
If you find yourself feeling lonely or struggling, whether due to a chronic illness or other difficulties in your life, it might help to connect with an online community for support. You can find some OHCs on this website: Health Union: Connecting People to Online Health Communities (health-union.com). If you don’t have access to a computer, there are other options to get connected or get mental health support on your phone or in person. If you are interested in local support groups for mental health, follow this link for a list of some: Bridgeport Group Therapy and Support Groups in Bridgeport, Fairfield County, Connecticut | Psychology Today. The LifeBridge Community center in Bridgeport also offers counseling services, you can call them at 203-368-4291 or learn more here: Home | LifeBridge Community Services (lifebridgect.org). On your phone, there is a free app called Insight Timer that has a variety of different guided mediations that help with anxiety, stress, or insomnia. It also has opportunities to connect with others on the app and join groups.
If you are feeling suicidal or are in a state of crisis related to mental health or addiction, call 1-800-662-4357 or go to this website for help: SAMHSA’s National Helpline | SAMHSA
1 Mental Health and Substance Use State Fact Sheets. [(accessed on June 8 2022)]. Available online: https://www.kff.org/statedata/mental-health-and-substance-use-state-fact-sheets/
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